Like a lot of other people, I was surprised at the abrupt dismissal yesterday of Carol Bartz from the CEO position at Yahoo!. Of course there were high expectations for Bartz from the moment she stepped into the position in 2009 and Yahoo! has not achieved much of the turnaround expected by its board and shareholders. One of the most notable things about this CEO firing, however, was the manner in which it was handled. “I am very sad to tell you that I’ve just been fired over the phone by Yahoo’s Chairman of the Board,” Bartz wrote. “It has been my pleasure to work with all of you and I wish you only the best going forward.” (My favorite part of this email was the “sent from my iPad” tag at the bottom of the message). The news this morning is that Yahoo! is now for sale and that the board has put in place an interim CEO (Yahoo! CFO Tim Morse) but is neither doing an executive search nor making any attempt at this moment for a permanent solution to the top leadership vacancy.
While every news outlet is covering this story, an article in the International Business Times made an interesting comment when it included in its list of challenges for any new Yahoo! owner or CEO the fact that Yahoo! had a “tired culture.” I thought this was a revealing turn of phrase. The departure of three CEOs in four years, coupled with fits and starts in Asia, challenges by Google and Facebook, and an enormous loss of talent from the most visible leadership at the top, would reasonably create an environment of uncertainty in what used to be the number one ranked search service in the world.
So do you blame this on Carol Bartz? Not entirely, although as CEO she’s certainly in the line of fire. In fact, if the culture seemed tired before, it’s going to be exhausted now with such an abrupt change. Similar to the changes at the top of the automaker food chains a few years ago, any successful CEO is going to have to consider “culture” to be as important as any other strategic element of a Yahoo! turnaround.
It’s not enough to have open office structures or to try to be cool. As of now anyway, you can’t out-Google Google. You can’t build an organizational culture and then create the organization. You have to first decide what you want to be and then create the norms and behaviors that support the way you want to be to get there. Until the board takes decisive accountability for the lack of direction, the next CEO is unlikely to be any more successful than Bartz or her predecessors.